city of thorns

city of thorns.png

by Ben Rawlence






2014 at white house.. kenya wanting to close dadaab .. saying it was ‘a nursery for terrorists’.. nsc wanted to know, was this my experience.. the us is the main funder of the camp

i had spent.. 3 yrs researching lives of inhabitants.. and 5 yrs before that reporting on human rights there. how to describe to people who have never visited, the many faces of that city.. the term ‘refugee camp’ is misleading. dadaab was established in 1992 to hold 90 000 refugees fleeing somalia’s civil war. at the beginning of 2016 it is 25 yrs old and nearly 1/2 mn strong.. an urban area the size of new orleans, bristol or zurich, unmarked on any official map.. i tried to explain  to the nsc officials my own wonder at this teeming ramshackle metropolis with cinemas, football leagues, hotels, and hospitals, and to emphasize that, contrary to what they might expect, a large portion of the refugees are extremely pro-american.. i said that the kenyan security forces, underwritten by us and british money, weapons and training, were going about things in the wrong way: rounding up refugees, raping and extorting them, encouraging them to return to warracked somalia.. but i sensed that the officials were not really listening. i was asking them to undo a lifetime of stereotyping and to ignore everything that they were hearing in their briefings and in the media..


their (nsc) only concern – how has dadaab lasted so long without going extremist..


how could i convey their towering dignity, their courage,and independence of spirit when they only featured in the official mind as potential terrorists?

there were no further questions and the meeting came to an early conclusion. i  had fallen into the liberal lobbyist’s trap: if the youth were not at risk of being radicalized, then perhaps the nsc didn’t need to worry about dadaab after all; the refugees could be safely forgotten

at a time when there are more refugees than ever, the rich world has turned thier back on them..our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human.. instead, those fleeing the 21st century’s wars in syria, iraq, afghanistan, somalia and elsewhere are seen as a potential fifth column, a threat.


caught between the ongoing war in somalia and a world unwilling to welcome them, the refugees can only survive in the camp by imagining a life elsewhere. t

it is unsettling: neither the past, present/future is a safe place for a mind to linger long. to live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically, your thoughts constantly flickering between impossible dreams and a nightmarish reality. in short, to come here you must be completely desperate..

part one – famine


1 – horn of africa


2 – guled


guled.. wanted nothing to do w al-shabaab. but it wasn’t always a choice. some children who refused to join has their hands cut off. one boy who lived nearby had said no when the recruiters came knocking. they took him anyway. the next day his 13 yr old sister opened he front door of their house to find his head on the step: a warning.


no one looked at the situation of the war and considered their options rationally: you tok decisions like a rock climber on a treacherous face making one move at a time to stay alive. the children had finally become part of the 870 000 who had been displaced from their homes in the capital since the ethiopian invasion in 2006


to flee one needed three things: money, courage and imagination.. that life might be different/better elsewhere is an uncommon leap..


it had taken less than a minute for guled to become one of the 2000 children kidnapped that year in somalia (2010)


3 – maryam


he talked to no one. this is what the war did: it stole the possibility of trust.

.. the driver paying off the police. traffic hadn’t fallen since the border was officially closed in jan 2007, the police had simply got richer..


dec 1.. 2010 – guled was he newest arrival in the largest refugee camp in the world..


4 – ifo


people giving him change for bus to ifo.. but.. no one would offer him a phone to call somalia; at nearly a dollar a minute that was a favour too far


the place guled had come seeking sanctuary was, according to oxfam, a ‘public health emergency’.. and had been for several years.. it was a groaning, filthy, disease-riddle slum heaving with traumatized people w/o enough tot eat. crime was sky high and rape was routine. ..


30 yrs of investment by saudi arabis in the horn of africa was paying off. wahabism, the strict literal islam of mistrust and division that has flourished in the fertile grounds of war-racked somalia was winning converts in the camp

dadaab felt very diff from somalia. in mogadishu, guled had been accustomed to ‘shahad’ according to religion and custom, if a stranger was in need, people share,d unquestioningly. in ifo he felt only hostility. the inhabitants eyed him nervously..


guled learned that employment in in kenya was forbidden.. kenya didn’t want somalis taking kenyan jobs..


a un official took his name. the woman asked no questions about what had happened in somalia. ‘insecurity’ was the reason guled gave for his flight and, after a medial, a photo, and a fingerprint, he received a laminated ration card and the info that there was no plot or tent for him. they were reserved for families.


(on describing the distribution of food rations).. watching too were two supervisors, well dressed in clean shirts, scarves and nice shoes, also in sunglasses. they were smiling. there was a game here, if you could spot it..t


6 – isha


for the past three years, hunger had become a normal thing. isha was familiar with the bleeding gums, the inflamed limbs, the cramped pain of drinking, the torture when the empty stomach eats itself. when the mind achieves a lucidity departed from the body… and the world acquires a glassy sheen..


when the brain shuts down and desire sleeps and the love between a man and a woman goes… a hungry man will just sit and cry.. hunger keeps you awake. you cannot sleep. it was said that the mind of a hungry person goes gradually mad

but isha had grown used to being hungry; it was not enough to make her leave. to leave meant to lose everything.


7 – hawa jube

where guled stays


8 –  a friday in nairobi


there would have to be people dying on tv before the money from rich govts would flow.. and when it finally did, it would come in a flood. and the markets for the local farmers would collapse entirely. the same thing happened every time..


the technical parts of the humanitarian system were working, delivering the warnings, but the political side was either sceptical or asleep..t


9 – maiden voyage

nisho learns that ifo is home


10 – the silent march


‘when a human being has something maybe they are afraid and keep themselves separate, but when you have nothing you can move anywhere and you are less scared about yourself. you are free’


rape of asylum seekers was epidemic. and they might have considered themselves the fortunate ones: they were alive. whole families were left behind… over ten thousand children were dying each month by then, many of them buried along the way..

down the line to the camps; nearly one thousand arriving every day now..


to the police on both sides of the border, the influx was a once in a lifetime chance to get rich..t

as always with humanitarian emergencies, it is the people on the ground who are the first responders. the internationals, if they come, are always late.

there were close to 400 000 people in dadaab now and nearly 25 000 in n zero


11 – muna and monday

2000 3000 a day were being registered, but 31 109 new refugees had reached dadaab along with isha that month


the g4s guards were collecting bribes of between 6 and 24 dollars a head to get into the reception centre during the emergency..

in their small brown sandals her toes had shed their nails.. but her eyes were no longer filmed with panic.all her children were alive.. 16 days after they had arrived in dadaab, international help was finally at hand.

welcome video… this was the moment of encounter. the meeting point between the two contradictory arcs of the 21st cent: the rule of law that has spawned the international humanitarian system, and its other legacy: the chaos unleashed by the end of the colonial project to subjugate and carve up the globe..t


it was also the moment of the bargain. when you traded your name for a ration card number. when you surrendered your autonomy to be processed into the faceless bureaucracy of the un system. isha surrendered willingly. she needed the protection of the camp. therefore the camp was good. and she was grateful..

then the video again, commanding: ‘wash hands.. seek medical help.. the camp is designed to support your needs.. camp services are free’.. this last concept was a constant battle. the timid watchful people processing thru the tents were easy prey for poorly paid security guards, bullying refugee leaders and rotten agency officials..

everyone had been quick to apprehend the opportunities afforded by the influx: from the g4s guards asking for bribes, and a system of recycling old refugees, to a sophisticated process of id theft. many of the older refugees had purchased kenyan id cards but new software was weeding them out, matching the fingerprints, and so they needed a ‘clean’ refugee document w fresh prints to keep in w a chance of the resettlement lottery.

for a large fee, officials were double-dipping famine victims’ fingers. unaware of the money being made all around them  isha’s family shuffle thru the line of tents until they emerged into the blast of wind blinking and newly stamped, like cattle..


kenya liked to warehouse all its refugees in one place where someone else could be relied upon to feed them and where they were easily surveilled. this created unusual communities/conflicts.

there were also an estimate 40 000 kenyans in the camps illegally, who had come for the free food/ed/health care.. that their govt did not provide


12 – live from dadaab


july 2011 – famine declared .. so now compound was crawling with journalists..didn’t know where they came from.. they didn’t give them any food.. eager to film the thinnest children.. some days more journalists than patients..


in the end.. 260 000 people died in the famine.. half of them under five. reports afterwards placed the blame firmly on the delayed response by the international community.


crazy mix of refugees dying and movie stars/journalists…. a cliched symbol of the heft that the international community is capable of deploying when it chooses to do so finally. the famine relief poured in. it had take tv to bring it here..


13 – billai


ifo2 delayed occupation.. mps wanted generous contracts for their own.. et al.. the sole purpose of a new un compound would be the opps for grabbing part of the 25 m it would cost to build and the contracts needed to clean/cater and run it.. collapsing under the weight of the desperate new arrivals, the un blinked first. the mps got their deals and the refugees, at last, after nearly four yrs of negotiations, go their new camp..

the geography of a refugee camp is about two things: visibility and control – the same principles that guide a prison. the refugee camp has the structure of punishment w/o the crime. the crime is implied..t

part two – rain


14 – kidnap

in a makeshift city, atop hard stone, with no drainage and no sewage, water brought new terrors: flooding and disease


15 – the jubaland initiative


in 2008 – s somalia bordering kenya.. a peaceful country (for refugees) in which to be free


17 – heroes day


youth umbrella – the youth who had come of age in the camp felt a responsibility to their people and to the camp. weren’t like traumatized elders. they saw selves separate.. from somalia.. but not of somalia.. considered themselves uncorrupted by the war.. blamed 40-60 yr olds for staring the conflict.. and under twenties for sustaining it. they were a unique creation of the un, an unwitting experiment in humanitarian social engineering.. had reached dadaab’s glass ceiling and were eager for bigger/better elsewhere.. prepping selves – via online – for career beyond the camp


18 – kheryo


the girls prep’d food .. then went back to studying.. the exam was more than their life.. students carried w them the hopes and expectations of whole families

schooling the world


when kheyro had got in secondary school (1/5 ish make it), she had waited at home for 18 days, elated to have won a place but ashamed to be unable to enrol for lack of a uniform and ashamed that her mother had to sweat on her behalf. all for the exam and the possibility it opened up to everything else: an incentive job, money, even a chance to leave.

two official routes out of dadaab to the rich world. one is the resettlement lottery, weighted towards the longer staying refugees and the vulnerable….. the other was the kcse (kenya cert of secondary ed).. some pay bribes to teachers for tutoring.. some go mad.. some commit suicide..

boko haram means  western ed is forbidden.. shutting down schools in somalia


19 – police


war in dadaab for first time.. no longer place of protection..police now feared the refugees.. everyone a suspected terrorist..and people in turn .. shrank from police.. mistrust festered o both sides..

violence became the new normal


where you come from there are bombs.. and now here there are bombs too. better the place you know..


fighting left them injured/raped/money-less/without-rations.. registration centres were closed… rain led to measles.. cholera..


20 – nomads in teh city


there were around 50 000 official urban refugees and who knew how many more illegally from dadaab in nairobi, mostly in eastleigh, but a refugee card is no protection against police harassment.. .. the constant shuffling of id cards/papers and the regular reluctant handing over of notes to grinning police who laugh and joke even as they rob.for the refugee, like the nomad, the city is hostile..


21 – we are not here to impose solutions from afar

the fact that the final communique of the meeting had bee leaked to the press ten days earlier somewhat undermined his assertion, and the thrust of its conclusions could easily be  deduced from the seating plan (conference).. david cameron flanked by un secretary and uganda president.. hillary clinton.. turkish foreign minister..  if people of dadaab had been watching.. they would have been shocked, and then they would have laughed..


the status quo in dadaab is dependent upon not recognizing the refugees as humans..t

because to do so would be to acknowledge that they have rights.. and to recognize those rights would be to occasion a reckoning with history that would be too traumatic.. it would see the land that the camps occupy as ancestral somali land. it would render the border that makes the refugees foreign a sham. and it would make the conditions under which they live a crime.. such a reckoning would tear the very state apart.  and so the refugees must, at all costs, be demonized.


for the somali president, simplifying the complex and shifting clan alliances with al-shabaab into a single terrorist threat was an essential part of maintaining international support. we are scared.. he said in his remarks.. today we are looking for security.

his wish was granted.. the key outcomes of the london conference were military. more troops, more training, more guns, more money..

efforts to impose a financial management board were resisted..a un report that followed the conference explained why: between 2009 and 2011 over 70% of development funds allocated to somalia had gone missing.. another report noted that the central bank of somalia had been turned into a ‘slush fund’ from which most withdrawals were for private purposes.. at the same time, the uk would quietly admit that nearly a million dollars of aid had ended up in the hands of al-shabaab..


22 – y= al-shabaab


y is a fail.. so unfair grading is y = al-shabaab.. they meant that those who failed to graduate highschool would have no option but to seek an income working for the extremists..


23 – buufis

buufis – longing for resettlement outside of camp


what remains is simply mistrust: the un mistrusts every refugee story and the refugees are convinced that the un is secretly planning to sell their only shot at freedom

for those slated to go, life is paused: they caonnot plan/dream, they are only waiting. but the numberse leaving are fewr than 2000 a year while the brithrate for teh camps is around 1000 a month


if they fear then they are harmless


24 – gufor


gufor – group four.. for the security guards who paid for sex and gave the block its reputation for prostitution..


in a freshly laundered unhcr t shirt.. behind his gold plated ray bans..the egyptian was unmoved..indeed, that was his job: like all the well-heeled international staff, he was paid nearly 9000 a month, tax free, to allow the wheels of bureaucracy to turn at their own pace and to keep the cases of desperate refugees such as muna from arriving on the desks of his superiors..


muna was perhaps the ultimate child of her generation. raised in the limbo of the camp, the true daughter of dadaab, muna had relinquished responsibility for herself entirely to the testing mercy of events. it had become a way of life


25 – in bed with the enemy


they say the ships were american, firing at us, but it is all the same to me.. one man ruminate slowly when he arrive in dadaab


peace afforded only a generalize prosperity for all. the real money lay in disorder: in the gaps, the margins, the illegal rackets, the opportunities for gaining an edge..

the kenyan army was in bed with the enemy


the refugees who had prayed for the kenyan army’s success, now began to regret it.. instead of making camps safer, the invasion of somalia was having the opposite effect


in truth, the inhabitants of the camp were trapped; there were no good options, they had nowhere to go. somalia was racked with violence and the resettlement process remained stalled. i the heat, the fear and the uncertainty, a stable pov was a rere and precious thing. the refugees’ convo was the dialogue of the prisoner with his own walls..

part three – home


26 – crackdown


27 – the stain of sugar


romance places heavy demands on the future. making he intolerable situation of the camp into a tolerable domestic reality for the present was a gymnastic trick that broke many marriages and tested reserves of patience..


28 – becoming a leader


in the camps, eh detonation of this bombshell (return of refugees) was bigger than anything planted by al-shabaab. this was not urban refugees being moved to camps, this was  a plan for the camps themselves to be dismantled. .. under international and kenyan law, refugees are supposed to return home voluntarily at a time of their choosing.


the language of govt was part of the youth umbrella’s game of pretend..

the youth of the camps saw themselves as leaders0in-waiting;indeed they had been encouraged in that vision by the rhetoric of countless ngo workshops and trainings. they adopted the political correctness, the bureaucratic habits and even the dress of the ngos and they spoke in cliches.. words like ..democracy.. transparency.. accountability. were to them like new outfits. having marinated in the un vocab their whole life, they had a naive idea of the outside world: that there was a standard, a normality that existed somewhere, in america, in europe, the the un, for which they were practising. for a democratic future that they would inherit and make real.


we are refugees by status not by choice.. we are not vulnerable people.. we are super humans. refugee is a state of mind..


the sound of live instruments and singing was not common in dadaab… the position of artists in the conservative milieu of the camp was desperate..


29 – too much football


30 – the night watchmen


nationality in the camp is less a fact than a game.


so the prejudice against the refugees was built, one misconception at a time..t


31 – sugar daddy


as a later study found: more than half of recruits to al-shabaab were motivated by police brutality..t


those who control things that really matter in dadaab do not live there..


32 – italy, or die trying


33 – waiting for the moon


a crack team of consultants for the world food programme flew in to oversee the rollout of the new biometric system. wfp was also facing a funding crunch. (something they kept to themselves at that point).. it needed to cut costs and that meant reducing the number of people it as feeding


mahat was hungry but he would never consider himself worthy of charity; hunger was normal.. nisho too was a master at keeping up appearances.. when asked where he would be feasting for eid, his reply glittered with multiple truths: we are only waiting for the moon he said..


34 – eid el-fitr


35 – solar mamas


bunker roy.. barefoot college.. comes to take some women to india.. to become solar engineers from illiterate grandmothers

bunker roy


36 – knowledge never expires


the incentive workers were allowed to work at all was a compromise between the un and the kenyan govt. but wha thad started out as a charitable idea had degenerated int a kind of slave labour. incentive workers are the backbone of the humanitarian operations in the camps, often working harder than the paid staff. of two people working side by side doing similar jobs, one can be paid 90 and the other 9 000


37 – welcome to westgate

sept 2013 – gunmen attack westgate mall in nairobi


61 dead.. many might have been saved if the response had been swifter


3 day hostage situation.. refused help from other nations..

president saying.. we are one on twitter.. except for the somalians.. the attack put the kenyan somalis in a difficult position. for some who felt they had to choose between their passport and their blood, it was an easy step to join the rest of the nation and shift the blame onto the refugees..

the head of the kenyan parliamentary defense committee… told the media that dadaab was being used as a ‘training ground’ for terrorists, and should be shut down forthwith.. while the road to somalia does indeed pass thru dadaab, there was no evidence that the attackers stayed there.. indeed, it emerged almost immediately that the attack was planned from a nearby apt in westlands itself.. nonetheless, other mps so took up the cry.


and, for the refugees, that became the meaning of westgate: the final stage in their journey in the kenyan imagination from neighbour, to other , to suspect and finally, to enemy..t

the camp waited nervously for the inevitable assault, for the revenge that would surely come..


38 – westgate two


seven were injured in total, not the 67 killed in the real westgate, but the terrorizing effect was similar enough for the refugees to call the cinema attack – westgate two


first westgate, then the cinema attack, and then on 1 nov, the worst news of all: the world food programme began cutting food rations by 20%.. they saw it as a form of collective punishment for westgate and as an encouragement to go back to somalia..


the unhcr press release about the agreement had underlined the word ‘voluntary’ in the title. as the cameras rolled, ole lenku prepared to disregard it. in precise english, he told the audience that his govt wanted the refugees gone..

lenku repeated the fiction that somalia was safe for return (of 400 000) but remained silent on the facts: clashes.. suicide bombings.. food shortages… the honourable minister, however, was no longer in the hospitality industry:

he had not come to listen..t

holmgren indigenous law

‘dadaab camp officially closed’ was the headline on the evening news..


39 – a lap dance with the un

the un are stalling. he said irritably.. dadaab is the buttered side of their bread..

ever since he had accompanied the honourable minister to the un, albert had been waiting for orders to implement the return agreement. none had arrived.

the agreement had been less about peace in somalia than about kenya politics..


ahmed warsame (somali head of the dadaab operation): whoa re we to say when they should or should not go bak.. the point he said.. was to help them if they desire it..doing that in a humane and orderly way was complicated and officials in geneva fretted about how to square kenya’s demands with their responsibilities under the un charter. they had to come up with a ‘returns package’ and a plan for the repatriation. it was a tall order..


although history may have turned minister’s speech into an embarrassment, it had succeeded in one respect, it had change the tone… kenya had manage to confirm dadaab’s official temporariness by assuming a direction of travel: towards a peaceful somalia, towards full-scale repatriation.. henceforth it would be impossible to acknowledge dadaab’s de facto permanence. kenya had set the clock ticking..

then talks of making things worse in dadaab.. less food et al.. daily life simply got harder..


(blaming refugees outside camp increased as well)

although the two dead suspects were neither somalis nor refugees, the govt was happy to blame the somali refugees. angered perhaps by the delay in repatriation, or maybe moved by some darker motive,

flailing officials reached for what they could control, in the only terms that they understood: force..t


a police truck appeared on the corner of 11th st in eastleigh, .. where daily, officers topped those passing and demanded papers and money..those who couldn’t afford the petty bribes were taken to kasarani football stadium in the city. 4 000 were rounded up and detained there in the first weeks of april.. at least two people died: a pregnant woman who was beaten up and a 6 mos old who starved to death after bing left in an apt when her mother was suddenly taken… just one of the 300 children separate from their parent sin the operation..  .. christened ‘kasarani concentration camp’..  a smuggle photo showed hundreds of men incarcerated in enormous cages in the stadium like battery chickens..


a year on, the front page of the weekend nation carried a photo of a smiling kenyatta relaxing in state house receiving the envoys of the us, the uk, canada and australia in a joint visit to pledge moral and material support for kenya’s war on terrorism. it was a fantastic turnaround..

the final irony was that usalma watch.. little effect on size of dadaab..

100 000 were freshly displace w/in somalia in 2014, some of who made their way across the militarized border to dadaab. to the kenyan govt’s chagrin, instead of shrinking, dadaab was growing once again..


40 – a better place


the city made of thorns now had a life of its own, beyond the refugees: it would not be so easily destroyed..

despite isha’s struggles, she was not planning on going anywhere for the time being. the dream of india had died a slow death . it was well over a yr since she had filled in the forms for the un passport in the un compound with sam.. and she had heard nothing.. having placed her faith in bunker and the barefoot college, resigned her position at the school and abandoned her business….. isha vowed to sue the indians and the un for compensation whenever they showed their face again…. after westgate, the govt had fired head of immigration.. and … for selling passports and visas to somalis and suspended issuing … but no one had told isha and hawo or even bunker himself..


refugee camps

Kilian Kleinschmidt